I watch Lidia Bastianich on television quite a bit. In some ways she stands in for the Italian grandmother I never had, complete with exhortations to join her (and her family) at her table to eat. I’d been meaning to check out Felidia for a couple of years now, but somehow never made it. My family has started a little bit of a tradition in the past few years: when my parents, my sister, and I are all in town, we try to go out to a fancy meal. With thoughts of family in my head, I realized Felidia would be a perfect place to go.
Felidia was a study in contrasts. Although the interior of the restaurant was very classic (wood paneling, wall sconces) and gave the impression of a formal dining room, the dishes themselves were almost informal. By this I mean relatively simple, rustic, and (in some cases) finished on a small burner in one corner of the dining room. Add to that the table of loud children at one table, and it really gave the impression of “family” dining I mentioned before. One of the other contrasts I became immediately aware of was the image of Lidia as food-providing grandmother vs Lidia the business woman. Of course, no one opens a restaurant without the intent of making money, but when you walk in the front door you are greeted by postcards advertising Lidia’s new book, on sale now! In addition, the menu prices were a little high for what we got, but overall it was a fun night.
My broccoli rabe appetizer ($18) was a great example of contrasts. The menu describes is simply: broccoli rabe, acorn squash, buffalo mozzarella, pumpkin seeds. And that’s literally all it was. Somehow, though, the dish became more than the sum of its parts. The soft squash with the crunchy seeds; the creamy, tangy cheese with the slightly bitter broccoli rabe; some warm (nothing hot), some cool. I thought back on our meal at Perilla, where my appetizer and entree were also a mix of textures and flavors. The main difference was that were Perilla kept adding additional ingredients to achieve this effect, at Felidia it was done with four simple ingredients. The more I ate it the more amazed I was by it. This ended up being my favorite dish of the night.
My mom also got the broccoli rabe, but my sister got the quinoa risotto with autumn vegetables ($15). This was a hearty, earthy dish, filled with squash and mushrooms and greens, but a little too one-note. My dad loved his chicken liver appetizer ($12).
My entree was another exercise in simplicity, but too much so. Candele pasta with a slightly spicy tomato sauce and fresh ricotta (I detected no hint of the rosemary listed on the menu) was fine, but not worth anywhere near the $25 Felidia charges for it. This is one of the dishes that was finished on the electric burner in the corner; I suppose they want to make sure the food is warm when it gets to the table.
My sister’s dish, while not amazing, was at least more memorable. It was ravioli filled with pear and pecorino cheese ($20). This dish sounds amazing, and if my sister hadn’t ordered it I would have. Interestingly enough, it wasn’t sweet at all. The pear was used, as my sister put it, almost like an onion — it was either grated or finely diced so there was definitely texture to it, and not the sweet puree we assumed it would be. My sister said that her feelings about it changed with each bite that she took. I tried a couple of bites and found it unusual but not great.
My parents really enjoyed their meat dishes, which were even more expensive. My dad’s lamb ($38) was a big plate of lamb prepared several different ways, while my mom’s beef ($34) was reminiscent of steak they’d had in Florence.
My dad bowed out of dessert, but not the rest of us. My mom got the limoncello tiramisu, my sister went for the apple strudel with cinnamon ice cream, and I got something called Palacinche. I had to ask the server what that meant. Palacinche are similar to crepes, in this instance stuffed with chestnut-rosehip jam. It was rich and complex, with interesting flavors and textures. I don’t always like chestnuts, but these were great.
After our meal I looked up the NY Times review of Felidia, and I was shocked to see that Frank Bruni awarded it three stars. I certainly didn’t have a three star experience; as an example, every single one of our wine glasses were dirty (to his credit, our server noticed it just before he poured the wine and brought fresh glasses — only to find out that my sister’s spoon was also dirty). The prices certainly reflected a three star meal, but that was about it. Although some of the food was very good, I was a bit disappointed in Felidia. And yet Lidia is on my television as I write this, so I suppose all is not lost.
Felidia — 243 East 58th Street